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Physics Major Wins Accolade for Innovative Research Technique

Leah Chen (C’25) won the third place prize in this year’s District of Columbia Space Grant Consortium Student Research Poster Contest. Sponsored by NASA, the Space Grant Consortium brings together institutions of higher education to support exceptional STEM students in their research through grants, scholarships and fellowships.  

“I’m deeply honored to have received this award,” said Chen. “This research is really new and exciting, and it feels rewarding to have it highlighted and shared with a greater audience.”

A girl smiles while wearing a blue lab coat. Her hair is pulled back and she holds a beaker, which is resting on a table.

Leah Chen (C’25) working the Van Keuren Lab.

Chen, a physics major and public health minor in the College of Arts & Sciences, is pursuing a pre-med track with her course of study. Intent on earning her M.D. after graduation, Chen’s desire to align her interest in physics with the world of medicine led to a novel research approach. Her work in the Van Keuren Lab aims to measure the rate of a reaction for a drug used for acute kidney injury.

“The project Leah’s working on involves the development of novel nanoparticles for treating a condition known as acute kidney injury, which is a loss of full function of the kidneys,” said Edward Van Keuren, a professor in the Department of Physics. “It’s often a complication from surgery, and there is currently no clinical treatment for it.” 

Chen’s research involves isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC), and is inherently interdisciplinary. She is taking a method commonly used in biology and unconventionally applying it to the field of physics with the hope of attaining novel results. 

“Leah has done an outstanding job of adapting a method known as isothermal titration calorimetry, which measures the heat released in a chemical reaction, to study the effectiveness of our nanoparticles,” said Van Keuren. “It’s a very tricky method to get good data from, but Leah has been persistent in her effort and is now able to get good results.” 

While working in the Van Keuren lab, Chen has benefited from conducting research alongside graduate students like Eleni Hughes, a doctoral candidate in physics. 

“Eleni has helped me so much throughout this whole process – she’s my go-to person,” said Chen. “She’s helped me connect so many  dots and is someone I’m always collaborating with to make sure my ideas are on track.”

In addition to winning a poster prize, Chen has recently been awarded another Space Grant fellowship for summer 2023 to continue her research in Van Keuren’s lab. 

“I’m looking forward to continuing this research,” said Chen. “At the end of the day, maybe it doesn’t work out, maybe we don’t find conclusive results, but that’s still a result that we can learn from and apply to something else.”

by Hayden Frye (C’17)

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